As the Illinois returns came in last night, and Governor Romney racked up an impressive win, albeit in historically light voting, Washington supporters of the House GOP met at a massive – and massively successful (it raised $12 million) – fundraising dinner… and inadvertently demonstrated the crosscurrents in the party.
The main speaker was South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, an attractive, smart, effective political leader. A product of Tea Party politics, Haley nevertheless endorsed Romney months ago. She was clearly the best thing Romney had going for him as he was losing the state’s presidential primary.
In her remarks Haley delivered an intelligent critique of President Obama’s tenure –the historic context of federal government growth starting in the 1930s, that today is not the 1930s despite the administration’s apparent belief otherwise, the disaster of overspending and over-borrowing, politically self-serving regulation, pandering to unions, abuses of power, and resulting economic stagnation when we so desperately needed a 1980s-style vigorous recovery.
It was a winning performance, though on the edges not quite ready for prime time. At any number of places, she set up what could have been big applause lines. One additional phrase here and there and she could have brought out the cheers and virtually compelled the media to quote her. But that extra phrase never came – and the speech, though engaging, fell, to these ears, just slightly flat.
But a sad soufflé speech (right chef, right ingredients, still doesn’t rise) is not what I mean by demonstrating crosscurrents. The crosscurrents were in what was said and what wasn’t said earlier in the program.
The “what was said” part came from the honoree of the evening, Congressman Jerry Lewis. The National Republican Congressional Committee gives an award each year. Last night the California congressman was its recipient.
And, yes, he is an impressive man. One of the presenters made reference to Lewis’ desire to learn Spanish. But according to the Almanac of American Politics (2010 edition), Lewis became fluent in Spanish years ago, to accommodate to demographic changes in his district. A professional legislator who served in the California assembly when Ronald Reagan was governor, he has spent adult life in politics and public service, by most accounts to good effect. A veteran of national security affairs at my table leaned over as the congressman accepted the award and whispered that Lewis was personally responsible for the Predator drone program. Years ago, Lewis championed the innovative system that in many respects rescued American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and pushed it through the appropriations process, apparently over considerable opposition. One right call like that is enough to give any member of Congress an honored place in the history books.
But Lewis has also become an emblem of what many consider the too-cozy-by-half ways of Washington – and that side of him was on display last night. In his brief acceptance remarks, he called for compromise in Congress. He said that sometimes good ideas come from the other party. Members needed to take note and look for ways to form broad coalitions.
Looking from one perspective, of course, Lewis was speaking a legislative truism. But it didn’t take a Washington insider to see that such a pillowey platitude when uttered from this podium at this dinner had a steel-spear-sharp point.
For others would say that two competing visions of government are in a standoff in America today. [For a particularly entertaining presentation of this position, click to this animated summary of Richard Epstein’s Encounter Books Broadside volume, Why Progressive Institutions are Unsustainable (http://tinyurl.com/75smfq3). The animation’s title is better, The Tea Party v. Occupy Wall Street.] And they would ask, in the present crisis, at the present moment, should congressional leaders like Lewis be trumpeting compromise or agendas?
An agenda would be House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s revised budget, the biggest news out of the House GOP this week — and here we come to the “what wasn’t said” sign of crosscurrents last night. Earlier this week, Ryan presented this serious, detailed plan for restoring financial health and constitutional limits to the United States government. You’d think the GOP leadership would have made more of it at their big dinner. But last night they could barely acknowledge it.
Here is a prediction: If the GOP wins the next election and goes on to restore limited government, robust economic growth and healthy public finances to the United States, it will be in spite of itself. It will be because of the times and the demands of the American people. In other words, more than in the hands of official Washington, America’s future is in the people’s hands – your and mine.
Come to think of it, what’s new about that?